Wednesday, October 07, 2009


I've been thinking a lot about physical beauty. I spent much of my life feeling like an ugly duckling, never sure how to dress, how to wear my hair, how to put on make-up, how to feel comfortable in my own skin. When I hit adolescence I was readily cast as the awkward, pimply computer geek. Even after college, when my skin (mostly) cleared and I bought cute skirts and sexy sweaters to replace the long, ratty t-shirts and jeans I wore to the computer lab, an assumed identity as a unattractive nerd was anchored in my head.

Then I hit thirty and had a baby, and decided that it was high time to start loving my face and body as they were. After all, we'd been through so much together. Instead of lamenting the zits that still plagued me occasionally, I thought, "This body looks great, can you believe it once carried a baby?" or "Don't you feel great after that long run?" or "Who's that attractive stranger reflected in the shop window?"

Still, I often felt unsure of how I looked, and rarely felt good about how I dressed. So, since I live in Paris and Parisian women are masters of looking perfectly put together, I decided to observe and learn. At first I compared myself and constantly came up short. My morning commute in the Métro was a parade of designer coats, blouses and skirts as perfectly coordinated as they were pressed, and shoes! Beautiful, spotless, uncomfortable shoes. I couldn't imagine how they -- or their perfectly pedicured owners -- managed to survive a daily commute. I was ashamed of my own skuffed footwear, with low heels in case I missed the bus.

It was disheartening.

Then I realized that I only noticed the women whose style and good taste stood out. The vast majority of women I ran across were like me; dressing with more or less success depending on the day, sometimes accessorizing a bit too optimistically ("This necklace goes with this, right?"), sometimes defaulting to black when no colors seemed to go, and usually wearing sensible shoes.

I felt so much better.

Then I started to dissect what did work for women and why. Instead of saying to myself, "She's so much prettier than I could ever be," I said, "She's beautiful. Why?" Sometimes it was just the clothes, or a haircut that worked particularly well, or a fashion model's build, or the fine-grained skin of lucky genetics. Sometimes it was the bourgeois address: a lot of stylish, perfectly groomed women get on the number 2 line between Monceau and Etoile. Sometimes it was something harder to grasp: some women, the rarest kind, had nothing special about them at all that I could identify and yet they looked more beautiful than the rest.

What do I mean?

I've been observing carefully, and I have decided that the most beautiful woman at work is a colleague in her mid-fifties. I'm sure she has more wrinkles than the twenty-somethings who gather to giggle and smoke outside the front door. She's slim, but not willowy like the receptionist who wears tight-fitting black to show off her curves. Her clothes are not expensive, as far as I can tell; she wears no obvious fashion labels, no expensive shoes. And yet she lights up the room when she walks up to the coffee machine, and men half her age turn to stare.

She smiles warmly, directs her attention equally, asks how everyone is doing and listens with genuine interest. I observe her hair while she talks. I've finally decided that the color is probably not completely natural, but it suits her so perfectly, it glows just like she does. She dresses in bright colors, not so much coordinated as harmonized from head to toe. She wears just enough make-up in just the right shade.

She always seems happy. When she walks down the hallway, she stops to say hello and chat briefly with everyone, even to the people like me that she doesn't know well. I can be having a terrible day spent griping to any and all about some problem or another, it doesn't matter. When I talk to her I find I'm happy, too.

That's true beauty. I'm sure it can't all be learned, but if I can grasp just a bit of her secret, imagine!

I think I've learned a few things, and I'll share them. But, dear women readers, I'm sure I'm not alone. What do you do to feel beautiful inside and out, or as they say in French "être bien dans sa peau" -- feel comfortable in your skin, and confident?


caramama said...

Hmmm. I'll have to really think about that and maybe post more later. I do think that my most beautiful trait is my generally happy, friendly personality. And my eyes (thanks, Mom!). ;-)

One trick I've always used is that on days when I feel really bad, I tend to dress the nicest. It's my way of doing "fake it to make it."

Sylvie said...

Oh, you're doing just what I've been doing since moving to Paris -- analyzing the style of all the women on the Metro! And I've come to the same conclusion -- most don't look THAT put together and they certainly don't seem to have as many clothes as American women. (How could they with the size of most Parisian closets???)They certainly are better groomed, though, and seem to pay more attention to their skin and hair. Of course, I'm from Seattle, where people wear parka-and-jeans to the opera and are proud to sport practical, plain undyed hair....
And yes, the most attractive face is the one radiating kindness and joy.

Cloud said...

I think that genuine happiness does make a woman more attractive. This is my explanation for why I look so much better in my wedding pictures than I do on most days! (Well, that and the fact that someone else did my hair and makeup.)

I think self-confidence and how you carry yourself has a lot to do with it, too.

I think I fall somewhere in the middle of the attractiveness scale- despite my occupation, I've never really been the stereotypical science/computer geek. But I am certainly not super stylish, either.

I used to think that my legs were my best feature- but they have definitely aged. Hubby says it is my smile (this is part of why he's my hubby...) and I occasionally get asked where I get my hair colored. I don't get my hair colored.